Steven Pinker: 'Unfortunately the 'f*cking' in 'f*cking brilliant' is an adverb', The Science of Swearing - 2008

10 September 2008, Warwick's, La Jolia, California, USA

I'm going to switch now from cognition to emotion, and the puzzle of language that I'll start with comes from an event five years ago when NBC broadcast the Golden Globes awards on live television, and accepting an award on behalf of the group U2,  Bono said and I quote: 'this is really really fucking brilliant'.

Now the networks did not bleep out the offending words, and the switchboards lit up and the case went to the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which has jurisdiction over the airwaves. In considering the matter they decided not to fine the network, because according to their guidelines, indecency is, quote, 'material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities' and the 'fucking in fucking brilliant' is 'an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation'.

Well a number of conservative politicans were enraged, and they filed legislation designed to close this loophole. I downloaded one of these bills from the uS Congressional website, and I'm going to read it to you right now:

House resolution 3687 - The Clean Airwaves Act

The House resolves that section 1464 of Title 18 United States code be amended (1) by inserting (a) before 'Whoever and (2) to the term profane used with respect to language includes the words shit, piss, fuck, cunt, asshole, and the phrases cock sucker, mother fucker and ass hole, compound use, (including hyphenated compounds) , of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle and infinitive forms).

Unfortunately the fucking in 'fucking brilliant' is an adverb, and that's the one part of speech they forgot to include.

This is a brilliant lecture on what swearing is about. If anyone has a full transcript I'd love to post it.